I read most of Graham Greene’s novels a decade or more ago, in my early 20s, and ended with great admiration for his extraordinary fertile period from the late 1930s to 1950s, when he produced a string of masterpieces, the best being also the most well known: The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair. One that escaped me was The Quiet American, so when I wanted to take a break from new books, it was back to Greeneland that I turned.
The Quiet American is a book which keeps you turning back to the copyright page as you read, suspecting the publishers of some conjuring trick. 1955? Really? The setting of a civil war in Vietnam makes me want to place it 15 years later. And the subject matter of American involvement in foreign wars makes it no older than 15 minutes ago. In fact, like all great literature, it’s news that stays news, and (as Ezra Pound didn’t say) it’s good anytime.
The book is narrated by Fowler, an English reporter on the conflict, who is telling the story of the war and the parts played by himself, his American friend Pyle, and Phuong, a local woman who has been lover to both. Fowler thinks himself detached:
‘You can rule me out,’ I said. ‘I’m not involved. Not involved,’ I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists call themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action.
But his view of himself is no more complete than his opinion of Pyle, as a ‘quiet American.’
On what did he relax? I found his light reading on another shelf: a portable Thomas Wolfe and a mysterious anthology called The Triumph of Life and a selection of American poetry. There was also a book of chess problems. It didn’t seem much for the end of the working day, but, after all, he had Phuong. Tucked away behind the anthology there was a paper-backed book called The Physiology of Marriage. Perhaps he was studying sex, as he had studied the East, on paper. And the keyword was marriage. Pyle believed in being involved.
Pyle’s involvement goes deeper than Fowler believes, and the whole book can be read as a succinct (it’s 180 pages) depiction of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And speaking of hell, it contains relatively little religious angst for a Greene novel, though he can’t resist the occasional burst of world-class nihilism:
Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever. I envied those who believed in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would no longer be the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity.
Which is what you get with Greene: in fact, these lines could have come from Bendrix in The End of the Affair, or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter. And if you find this sort of thing dreary rather than bracing (and I admit it’s less seductive to me than it was a decade ago), then Greene’s books are probably not the pastures for you. But there is much more to him than that anyway, of course. Aside from his impeccable dialogue (and one of the surprises of The Quiet American is how funny it is, particularly in the cynical responses Fowler makes to Pyle when discussing Phoung’s future), he has an almost peerless ability to merge a dramatic, exotic storyline with the most sombre and penetrating of human insights. But for me one of his greatest attractions has always been the apparent messiness of his books, his refusal to allow you to get a clear grip on moral certainties and straight polarities of character: “we all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we can’t get out.” They’re something to get your teeth into, less fresh fields than a jungle.